A teacher on death row

By Zubeida Mustafa

WHEN someone claims to have been denied a fair hearing before the courts due to systemic flaws, I think of the golden “chain of justice” that has earned the Mughal emperor Jahangir a place in history. Outside his castle in Agra a bell had been installed for those who wanted a personal hearing from the emperor. They just had to pull the chain.

There are many prisoners locked up in our prisons today who need such golden chains. In other words, their point of view needs to be heard. One of them is Dr Zulfiqar Ali, an inmate of Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore. I came to know of Zulfiqar’s case way back in 2009, when Justice Project Pakistan , in conjunction with the London-based Reprieve, two legal aid organisations, had filed a mercy petition to the president on his behalf. I had written about him pleading for his life in view of the good work he was doing to educate fellow-prisoners (May 20, 2009).

When I traced out Zulfiqar’s brother recently and through him got in touch with Zulfiqar himself, I now feel his case has been further strengthened and people like him deserve to live so that they can continue to contribute meaningfully to society. This requires the prime minister to translate into action his promise made in June 2008 to do away with the death penalty. True the government has not carried out any execution since then. But we need an announced moratorium on capital punishment as suggested by the UN Assembly in 2007.

Zulfiqar Ali feels that his view has not been heard and he has been denied good legal counsel. He may have a point there because Zulfiqar is a man of modest means and appointing a good lawyer is expensive business in Pakistan. According to the mercy petition filed on his behalf he was given the death penalty when “he was involved in a confrontation with two hostile strangers which led to their death”.

What he needed was a lawyer who was competent and a man of integrity to argue his case. Had he got one, he might have been a free man today. The lawyers appointed by the courts in such cases usually don’t fit the bill. It is the poor who suffer the consequences.
This has been confirmed by numerous studies that have been carried out the world over. Amnesty says that the death penalty is used “disproportionately against the poor”. Its 2008 study based on the Indian Supreme Court judgments concluded, “Whether an accused is ultimately sentenced to death or not is an arbitrary matter” and a decision depends on “a number of extremely variable and often subjective factors — ranging from the competence of legal representation to the interest of the state”. It goes on to say, “The less wealth and influence a person has the more likely is he to be sentenced to death.”

In the US a similar link between poverty and the death penalty has been noted by Jeffery and Colleen Johnson who state, “When capital defendants are represented by inexperienced, underpaid, and in some cases incompetent, attorneys, it should come as no surprise that legal and strategic mistakes are common.” According to the writers justice would be done only “when everyone is afforded the same quality (and quantity) of criminal defence”.

In such cases when a life is at stake, the oversight function of the court to ensure the competence and integrity of the counsel provided to the defendant becomes important. Zulfiqar Ali claims that the lawyers appointed by the courts to argue his appeals didn’t meet him at all. When Zulfiqar wrote to the Supreme Court requesting a review in 2006 the chief justice converted his application into a review petition suo motu. Then came the judges’ crisis. In the period that chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was fighting his own battle Zulfiqar Ali lost his case without his voice being heard. The lawyer never showed up for the review hearing in 2008. Hurriedly the court appointed another lawyer present there to fulfil a formality.

It is time Zulfiqar Ali, a man who loves books and has spent the last 14 years of his life in imparting education to his fellow prisoners, were allowed to plead his case. Should not he be given a chance to live so that he continues to pursue his passion to spread knowledge and make Pakistan a more educated country? What I find remarkable is his ability to keep a steady head in times of severe personal crisis. How else will you describe the four years since 2008 when his last appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court? He has had 15 execution dates fixed but has escaped the noose by 16 stay orders. The present stay ends on March 31. While in jail, he lost his wife to cancer and his two young daughters are denied the love and care of their surviving parent. Zulfiqar has managed to obtain a transfer to Kot Lakhpat from Adiala Jail to be closer to his family.

Zulfiqar’s academic performance is impressive. He has taught over 300 prisoners how to read and write. A hundred have matriculated, 80 have done their FA, 50 have graduated while eight went on to pass their MA exams. He himself completed successfully two MAs while imprisoned and did his MD in Herbal Medicine from the Allama Iqbal University. His educational and teaching record itself should make this a strong mitigating factor for the commutation of his death penalty into life imprisonmen.

Source: Dawn

15 thoughts on “A teacher on death row”

  1. Hats off to this person who is an example for us. If only he is given a chance outside jail, one can not even imagine how much light he would impart. I just hope and pray that some miracle can get him out as we need people like him.

  2. I think we should contact international human rights organizations to lobby for his acquittal.

  3. nothing as barbaric as a state taking a life with cool deliberation; the ultimate murder; capital punishment is not justice but atavistic vengeance.
    badri raina

  4. What wondrous thoughts, what beautiful writing – Allah kare zor-e-qalam aur ziada!
    All the best

  5. We should all thank that we live in this age of integrated communication. This gentleman and, previously, Sohail Fida show how justice system needs a revamp.

    Will it help if start an online petition for him and ask people from around the world to consider his case? If a television host can be replaced through online petition, why can't we try it on saving lives?

    1. I agree with Durrani we must go in to mobilization of all available channels of national international HR organizations, media,and public support, signature campaign , can we also not hire a strong lawyer?to fight his case?

      I am here to be part of this struggle , it is a shame for us all .

  6. We can find Zulfiqars at many places and what to talk about Pakistan or Kot Lakhpat /Adiala Jail. It is happening through out the ages even in the era of Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

    It is true that merited and useful person like Zulfiqar are at the mercy of "quality and quantity of criminal defense”.

    Zulfiqar would prove his worth more effectively in the filed of education, medicines, socially and economically once he is given a free hand and full support.

    Please convey my Best Wishes,Regards and concern.

  7. In Pakistan today there are hundreds literally hundreds of innocent people who are languishing in jail. I too could have been in it but that is another story.
    Enver Khorasanee

  8. Zulfiqar's amazing record in jail of educating prisoners is powerful enough evidence to show that he could not have committed a crime, much less, one in which a capital punishment can be awarded.
    Capital punishment has been rejected the world over, given the reality of discrepancies and lack of equal provision of justice for all. Unequal justice is no justice at all.
    If Zulfiqar has not had a chance at all to either speak for himself or through a competent lawyer, any punishment awarded or carried out would be a criminal act. Carrying out the Death penalty would be Murder by another name.
    Most important – We need to act. A 'Mercy Petition' can help.
    Send his case to AHRC, HRCP. And if possible through CARE, MovOn.org & Amnesty to raise a petition.
    Zubaida, you can provide the information on the case for raising the petition. Please call Naveed Baseer @AHRC Zohra Yusuf @HRCP and Amnesty. All of them raise petitions. AHRC will also appeal to the Human Rights Cell at the Supreme Court. Everyone can contribute by 'forwarding' the AHRC appeal to still more people to sign.

  9. Can another appeal be moved. If so then could some humanatarian lawyers like Justice Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim or Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid be convinced to represent the case. Fund raising for lawyer's fee is possible. I guess the thrust should be changing death penalty to life imprisionment
    Aquila Islam

  10. A teacher on death row
    If a person has a will to do something no thing, under the sun, could deter them from carrying out the mission they have set. Goes the famous saying, there is a will, there is a way. The case with Zulfiqar vouches for it. Though he is imprisoned physically but his spirit is still at liberty. The confinements of the prison are not going to deter him from doing his noble job, that is to say educating the inmates with in the boundary walls of the prison.
    If his death sentence were commuted into life imprisonment he might find more time to spread the light of the education further.

  11. To be so focussed on death row speaks of an extra-ordinary character.What can i do to get him out?Can contribute a humble amount for a lawyer to take up his case.It is painful to read about inequities of our societies,rich or poor.

  12. Abdul Wahid Shabab says, “If his death sentence were commuted into life imprisonment he might find more time to spread the light of the education further”.
    I say, “if he is set free he will find more time and students to spread the light of the education further”. Thus a national asset will stand fully utilized.
    Quratulain is of the opinion that strong lawyer be hired and Aquila Islam supports it and Arshad Durrani ready to contribute some money. Zubeida has disclosed that he has had 15 execution dates fixed but has escaped the noose by 16 stay orders.
    The Supreme Court already has stayed 15 execution dates it means Supreme Court has done what could have been done. Now a strong lawyer should be given chance to get the justice done completely and forever. I doubt that Mr Zulfiqar will accept any financial help as he is a self supporting and dignified person.
    Saad Durrani has picked up electronic media for effective and meaningful support. Good suggestion. Integrated communication be utilized. His case be spread widely and beyond subcontinent. In India now too many people consider and acknowledge that media (print and electronic) is a COURT-cum-JUDGE. Too many culprits are back into jail due to mass propaganda and discussions by electronic media. The rich and powerful person would take away their son and relative out of court due to the buying power of prime witnesses. A prominent and top most lawyer Mr Anand has to lose his practice right as well as was terminated from Congress Party as it was discovered/found by media that he has passed on benefits to the prime witness. More and more examples are there. Similarly if media makes a case in favor of Zulfiqar then definitely it will yield positive result.
    Just wonder about this man (Zulfiqar) in jail for many years. Got and given education in jail. Brilliant wife dies due to cancer and loses two promising daughters. A very strong and sturdy man. A symbol of patience and believer in NEVER LOOSE. One must follow his ways for a bright and strong future. Really society badly needs too many Zulfiqar not only in Pakistan but everywhere.

  13. Someone wrote about the court system in the US. “It is a court of law, not a court of justice.” If one is rich one can win their case.

  14. A great humanitarian research and thoughtful writing to attempt saving life of an innocent and a great teacher. Despite being on the death row he finds solace in teaching – a task not many prefer to do. All efforts must be mobilized not only to rehabilitate a family but also a teacher – a teacher who is a motivating force for those with him waiting for the gallows but also who may be his compatriots in the teaching profession.

    Zulfiquar Ali must be prevented from going the gallows so that he continues to educate the many eneducated and set example for others to emulate.

    Long live Zulfiquar

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